In the middle of the Greek financial crisis and at a time when the negative criticism towards the Greek country and its people had become almost a general trend, Jimmy Jamar, head of the European Commission Representation in Belgium and a genuine philhellene himself, decided to take action.
In 2012 he established at the heart of Europe, Brussels, The 12 Hours for Greece Project, a voluntary charity association aiming to collect funds to assist beneficiary organizations in Greece operating in the fields of education, health and the fight against poverty.
During the 3 years of its operation the association has collected over 35,000 € and has successfully contributed to the cultural promotion of the country re-introducing through several events the Greek civilization and soul to the European fellows.
AlexWorldClub had spoken with Mr.Jamar about his first acquaintance with Greece and his special bond with the country, The 12 Hours for Greece Project as well as his latest book “Letters to Byron”.
As a modern philhellene that you are, what does Greece mean to you?
Greece, I can say, is a very important part of my life. Since 45 years, as a traveler or in the framework of my work at the European Commission, I have been engaged in a sort of passionate relation with the country and its people, trying to understand its complexity, to get to know its culture and to grasp why, of all countries in the world, this specific little piece of earth has always inspired people, to an extent that they get mobilized – and in some occasions gave their lives – when it is attacked and criticized. This is what Philhellenism is about!
I must add that I am married with a Greek woman, which has also broadened the relationship.
When was your first acquaintance with the Greek country and its people?
I remember very well my first visit to your country. I was sixteen, my brothers and I had worked well at school so our parents decided to offer us a little cruise in the Mediterranean at Easter. I was particularly glad to go to Greece, having studied Ancient Greek for six years in high school. We sailed from Venice to Dubrovnik and Split, and the first harbor we reached in Greece was Katakolon, near Olympia. Not the most glamorous harbor in the country, but believe it or not, 45 years later, I perfectly remember the temperature, the music played on the deck, and above all, the smell of the orange blossoms. I remember distinctly going down the steps, and, on the point of setting foot on the Greek soil for the very first time, telling myself: “This country will also be mine”. Strangely enough, when doing some research for my book “Letters to Byron”, I found out that he had felt similar experiences just 70 kilometers North! Talking about coincidences …
How often do you visit Greece and what is your favorite place to be while staying in the country?
I go to Greece as often as I can, for holidays, but also on shorter terms. I would say that I “need” to go to Greece every two or three months. I have traveled to the different parts of the country around 250 times, in all seasons. I used to visit places like Larissa in the middle of the winter for my work, and this is certainly another way of experiencing the country than just to lay on beaches in the Summer. As regards my favorite places, I would say Folegandros in the Summer (I have a house there since 1986), and Nafplio in the winter (I find it a very inspiring city). But there are of course dozens of other places which I fell in love with – Papingo in the Zagorachoria, Monemvassia and Mystra in the Peloponnese, Symi, Hydra, Patmos. I adore Athens, which I know quite well. But the best kept jewel that I know is the inhabited island of Poliaigos, close to Milos and Kimolos, which has some of the most impressive colors and rocks I have ever seen.
Which are the country’s strengths and how could we highlight them?
I think that because of its tormented history, one of the greatest assets of the Greek population is its adaptability and creativity. You see it whenever you visit the Greek communities throughout the world. I see it also now, in the middle of the crisis, where many people, particularly the younger generation, tries to find new ways to get through the turmoil. I see it in tourism, in gastronomy, I see it with the success of Greek brands in areas such as cosmetics, jewelery etc. I see it also in the success of Greeks in many Universities in Europe, Australia and North America. I see it in projects that young Greeks send me every week. That’s why I get furious when I read stereotypes stigmatizing the Greek population. People who say these things don’t know Greece and have probably never been to Greece. I hope that, when the country will pull itself out of the crisis, we will find ways to bring back to the country many of its intellectual assets.
The 12 Hours for Greece Project
What is the “12 hours for Greece”?
12 Hours for Greece is a charity project that I launched in 2012, in the middle of the crisis to try to help, through the organisation of cultural events in Belgium or elsewhere, associations in Greece operating in the areas of education and health. During the three all-day events conducted so far, we were able to help associations such as To Hamogelo tou Paidiou (the Smile of the Child), Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders), Make-a-Wish-Greece, ELEPAP (the Hellenic Association for Handicapped Children), and, more recently, the International Foundation for Greece, for a project entitled Fuel for Schools, aiming at purchasing fuel to heat schools in winter in the North of the country.
The provision of heating oil at a public school in Evros, North Greece.
Why did you feel the need to create such a project?
The criticism that I experienced around the Greek people in some European countries during the crisis of 2011-2012 triggered a need to do something concretely to try to change the opinion around Greece and to stop stereotypes. This feeling was never present in my own country – Belgium -, where there has always been a strong feeling of sympathy towards Greece and its people. But Brussels being the Capital of Europe, there was a strong symbolic value in launching the initiative from there.
The “12 hours for Greece” already counts 3 years of existence. How did the European people respond to it?
The answer was amazing, from the public and the media alike. In the three events, we gathered altogether over 5,000 people. There is a strong interest in Belgium regarding what is happening in Greece. We have a strong Greek community (20.000 people, with strong cultural traditions – 7 Greek theatre and 10 Greek dance groups!); we also have the international community; but it was really interesting to see how the Belgian population responded, and continues to do so.
Are you satisfied with the results of your project?
Of course, even though I would like to gather even more money! There are many needs in Greece, and we must work on that. But the brand “12 Hours for Greece” is now well known, and I am optimistic that we will do even better in the future. 12 Hours is also a great network of friends with all the artists that have come : Lavrentis Machairitsas (three times), Dionysis Savvopoulos, Aleka Kanellidou, Panos Mouzourakis,Dimitra Papiou, Yiannis Zouganellis, Miltos Paschalidis, but also some great “classical” moments with fantastic artists such as the mezzo-soprano Alexandra Gravas, the young pianist Petros Bouras and the guitarist Panayotis Margaris. We also had people like Georges Corraface who came several times from Paris. This has created a network of friends which we are very proud of. Remember that all this is a charity project and that most artists come on a voluntary basis!
What’s next on your agenda? Do you have any future plans or desirable collaborations to achieve regarding the “12 hours for Greece” project?
Yes! First of all, we are preparing a great concert on 27 October where we will bring to Brussels for the first time Kostas Ferris and his Café Aman – a charity evening devoted to Rebetiko.
We will also be launching in September a crowd-funding action for the Fuel for School project, where the aim will be to collect money and create twinnings between Greek schools in the North and municipalities, schools and associations in Belgium.
And finally, in 2017, we are preparing a “March for Europe”, linking Brussels to Athens – by foot (walking or running!) 3.500 km by 350 walkers, each doing 10 kilometers. The benefits, here again, will go to the Fuel for Schools project.
About the book “Letters to Byron”
Cover of the Book Letters to Byron.
The Letters are the story of my relation with Greece. I wanted to find a way to explain to people who do not know Greece, the complexity, the beauty and the inventiveness of the country. You cannot judge a country if you don’t know its history, and Greece since centuries – including the post Independence period – has grown through a great deal. This is what I tried to explain by addressing myself – very modestly – to the greatest Philhellene of the modern times.
I think first of all that European leaders need to revisit seriously the European project, starting from its values: the spectacle of division experienced around the Greek and the migration crises are very detrimental to the European cause. I think also that Greece has to put its act together by developing the structures of a modern state, implementing the reforms that it highly needs, starting with an efficient taxation system. The friends of Greece, the Philhellenes, will help wherever needed, but the main issue is about a political will, in Greece and elsewhere in Europe, to define a new vision together.
During the last years of the crisis Greek society has gone through dramatic changes .There is a lot of sadness and pessimism among the people. Do you believe that Greece will manage to overcome its current difficulties?
I am an optimistic person. I have seen Europe and the World go through many difficult moments. Greece, as mentioned earlier, has the capacity and above all the resources to make the necessary reforms and enhance its credibility. I dream of a day where the Greek researchers, entrepreneurs and university professors will come back to the country and contribute to driving it forward.
Is there anything that you would like to say or a piece of advice to give to the Greek people?
I think the Greeks should believe more in themselves as a nation. I hope that they will find the ways to overcome their divisions and work together to the benefit of the country. History has deeply divided the country and the last months have showed that the divisions are still very vivid. There is an incredible contrast between the way Greeks relate to each other, and the attitude they develop towards the outside, where they display, by essence, the values of generosity, hospitality and curiosity. Greece is the most beautiful country in the world; it creates – and continues to do so – love and empathy. I hope that the Greeks will learn to work together to maximize their assets and strive for a better common destiny.